Ila Fox Loetcher, famed "Turtle Lady" of Texas, passed away on January 4, 2000. She was 95. Dr. Pamela Plotkin, of the Center for Marine Conservation, announced her passing on the CTURTLE mailing list with this tribute:
"Ila was the founder of Sea Turtles, Inc. and perhaps was most widely recognized for dressing sea turtles in clothes. She appeared in magazines, newspapers and on television with her turtles. I first learned of Ila back in the early 1980s when she appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and brought with her a turtle wearing a dress and panties. Naturally you might think this to be a bit odd...but Ila dressed turtles primarily to catch the attention and interest of those she wanted to teach. And over the years she did a wonderful job teaching tens of thousands of people about sea turtles, their biology and threats to their survival.
"Ila built large tanks in her backyard and took in injured and sick turtles, nursed them back to health, and then released them. Turtles unable to be released were put on display to the public in her backyard. She held shows in her backyard every day, often several times each day, and she tirelessly educated those willing to listen...and pay a small fee. Ila used this money to support the upkeep of her turtles. In addition Ila provided very generous grants to support conservation and research that helped recover sea turtles and their habitats.
"I only met Ila once. In the short time I spent with her I was most impressed with her dedication to sea turtles as well as her generosity and her love for engaging people in discussion about sea turtles. She accomplished a great deal in her 95 years. In all my years of working with sea turtles I have never seen anyone hug a turtle the way Ila did."
Dr. Plotkin's tribute prompted these memories from Dr. Richard Byles, a member of the Board of Directors of Sea Turtle Inc. His farewell lovingly captures the spirit that made Ila Loetcher so special.
"Ila was truly an inspiration to many. She was old in years and young in spirit when I first met her in 1978 (last century). Ila used to dress her "pets" up and perform skits for school-aged children. It sure got their attention. Her companion, Evelyn Sizemore, was even seamstress to the bale of turtles Ila kept. At first, I was dismayed at the shows she put on, I guess because it was seemingly unseemly and embarrassing to me as a young activist embarking on a sea turtle-influenced career. After all, weren't these endangered species? But she soon persuaded me that she was foremost a champion of sea turtles. She swayed me, not through words, but by dint of her heartfelt enthusiasm for bringing the plight of sea turtles before the public. And her success in doing so.
"Did you know that Ila was a pilot and friend of Amelia Earhart? She flew at a time when women were rarely found in the ranks of aviators and adventurers. So even before the turtles captured her attention, she was an inspiration. She was a bold and charming woman. She charmed the public and spread the word about the declines of sea turtles and she charmed me. I remember one time when Pat Burchfield and I took Ila to dinner at Blackbeard's on South Padre. She was ready when we picked her up at home, dressed in a octogenarian floral print dress and running shoes. At that time, old people never wore tennis shoes and I personally had never seen such casual footgear worn with a dress. I think she unknowingly helped to spawn the term, "little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes." She was in her eighties, slim, almost frail in appearance, but was sprightly and had a twinkle in her wrinkled eye. At the restaurant, she ordered fried oysters and ate a huge mound of them -- nothing wrong with her constitution. She impressed me with the gusto of her appetite; gusto she had for all of life's pursuits, only one of which was the saving of her cherished sea turtles.
"She confided in me that night how she got her show turtles to flap one flipper in a wave goodbye to the crowds of children she entertained and instructed. "I just squeeze their arms up near the shell, I suppose it's the armpit. It is like tickling," she said. Well Ila, you sure tickled me. And in turn, I rarely pass an opportunity to tickle juvenile sea turtles I happen to hold. They always wave goodbye.
For more information about the remarkable life of Ila Loetcher, her work, and the organization she founded, visit Sea Turtle Inc. on the web.
Thanks to Sea Turtle Inc. for permission to use the photo of Ila Loetcher, and to Drs. Plotkin and Byles for permission to reproduce their tributes.